Sunday, September 26, 2010

Windings of the River Tummel

Inspired by a recent visit to Scotland, I have been reading the Yale edition of Dorothy Wordsworth's Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland.  The pleasures of this text are considerably enhanced by editor Carol Kyros Walker's atmospheric black and white photographs, taken as she retraced Dorothy's route.  Walker explains her decision not to use colour photography with reference to the process of writing an account of a journey. 'In calling up, and re-collecting the images of a place there must be a moment just before total illumination in the mind when what is there pauses for the final investment of the thinker.  For me, that instant is in black and white.'  The Recollections itself comprises two distinct sections and modes of recall: the first written in 1803 just after Dorothy's return from Scotland and full of daily detail, the second written in 1805 and prefaced with a note explaining that the style and tone had been affected both by the passage of time and the recent loss of her brother in a shipwreck.

The Recollections demonstrate an impressive willingness to endure physical discomfort in the search for Romantic scenery.  Dorothy Wordsworth travelled with her brother and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in an Irish 'jaunting car' - an open-air two wheeled cart that made the landscape more accessible than a chaise, and which provoked amused or suspicious looks at various points along the way.  Their poor horse had a miserable time of it, ending up frightened by even the suspicion of another awful loch crossing, and the travellers encountered dirt and inhospitality at many of the inns and homes along the way (not surprising given the prevailing poverty and resentfulness towards England and the ongoing Highland Clearances).  The terrain and roads could be difficult too and Carol Kyros Walker lists the distances travelled, along with the adjective Dorothy uses for that part of the route.  The resulting table reads to me like a Richard Long text piece, for example:

Killin (tolerable) 7
Kenmore (baddish) 15
Blair (bad) 23
Fascally (wretchedly bad) 18
Dunkeld (bad) 12
Ambletress (hilly - good) 10
Crieff (hilly - goodish) 11
Loch Erne Head (tolerable) 20
Callander (most excellent) 14

Dorothy Wordsworth used various means of evoking the landscape - topographical description, reference to earlier writers like Sir John Stoddard, quotation from Wordsworth's poems ('To a Highland Girl', 'Stepping Westward', 'The Solitary Reaper' etc.) She also made some sketches, like this one of the River Tummel, 'a glassy river' gliding through the level ground 'not in serpentine windings, but in direct turnings backwards and forwards.'  There is no doubt that she was influenced by writers on the Picturesque (Walker refers to a study on this by John R. Nabholtz which notes, for example, that her sensitivity to the absence of trees may reflect the aesthetics of Uvedale Price).  She remarks upon the landscape's 'inhabited solitudes' and sometimes sees isolated figures in pictorial terms, like the melancholy woman alone in a desolate field and an old man exhibiting 'a scriptural solemnity'.  These provoke the thought that in Scotland 'a man of imagination may carve out his own pleasures'.  Walking over the brow of a hill at twilight, she sees a boy wrapped in grey plaid, calling to his cattle in Gaelic. 'His appearance was in the highest degree moving to the imagination... It was a text, as William has since observed to me, containing in itself the whole history of the Highlander's life - his melancholy, his simplicity, his poverty, his superstition, and above all, that visionariness which results from a communion with the unworldliness of nature.' 

Both Dorothy and William Wordsworth noticed the changes being made to the landscape - deploring the felling of trees at Neidpath Castle, for example, and complaining at Douglas Mill that 'large tracts of corn; trees in clumps, no hedgerows ... always make a country look bare and unlovely'.  Carol Kyros Walker finds much of what Dorothy wrote about unaltered, with a few obvious changes (the photograph of a 'solitary reaper' shows a distant tractor).  Nevertheless, the 'astounding flood', as William described the falls of Cora Linn, appears less impressive now that hydroelectirc power has been introduced to the Clyde.  Dunglass Castle can still be seen on its promontory, where Dorothy, admired the view 'terminated by the rock of Dumbarton, at five or six miles distance, which stands by itself, without any hills near it, like a sea rock.'  However, the accompanying footnote explains that the castle, later home to Charles Rennie Mackintosh, eventually became a stationery store.  'It is now on the grounds of an ESSO oil terminal which is kept under strict security.  To visit the castle one must be escorted by an ESSO guard and agree to don a hard hat.'

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Carmel Point

I have been kindly invited to go to Glasgow this week to take part in a conversation as part of the Values of Environmental Writing Research Network.  Part of the discussion will consider Dark Mountain, 'a new cultural movement for an age of global disruption', and Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, with its call for writing and art grounded in a sense of place and time, which steps outside the human bubble to reengage with the non-human world.  The authors, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, state that 'our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.  We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of 'problems' in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.'  This pessimistic view has met with opposition, from George Monbiot for example: 'to sit back and wait for what the Dark Mountain people believe will be civilisation's imminent collapse, without trying to change the way it operates, is to conspire in the destruction of everything greens are supposed to value.'  In a critical Guardian article, Solitaire Townsend worries that 'Dark Mountain isn't a prophesy: it's the outcome of inaction' and likens them to the diners at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

Robinson Jeffers' Hawk Tower, Tor House, Carmel

These criticisms echo those made at various times of Robinson Jeffers, the poet cited by Dark Mountain as a key inspiration, who advocated a philosophy of 'inhumanism' and opposed US involvement in the war - 'the fever-dreams of decaying Europe'.  Addressing the tower he built at Carmel, he wrote "look, you gray stones / Civilization is sick: stand awhile and be quiet and drink, the sea-wind, you will survive / Civilization."  This poem, 'Pearl Harbor', and others in his 1948 book The Double Axe provoked a disclaimer from his publishers and many hostile reviews. The Dark Mountain Manifesto acknowledges that Jeffers' reputation has suffered: 'today his work is left out of anthologies, his name is barely known and his politics are regarded with suspicion. Read Jeffers’ later work and you will see why. His crime was to deliberately puncture humanity’s sense of self-importance. His punishment was to be sent into a lonely literary exile from which, forty years after his death, he has still not been allowed to return.'

 Robinson Jeffers, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, July 9, 1937

Robinson Jeffers may not be as well regarded now as he was eighty years ago, but his poems are still read and 'Carmel Point' appears in two recent anthologies of environmental poetry, Earth Shattering and Wild Reckoning. His inhumanism in this poem is not too extreme: 'we must unhumanize our views a little', he says. 'This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses— / How beautiful when we first beheld it, / Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs.'  Jeffers is reassured that the landscape 'knows the people are a tide / That swells and in time will ebb, and all / Their works dissolve.'  This theme of ecofatalism recurs in many Jeffers poems.  In his book Ecocriticism Greg Garrard draws a connection between Jeffers (along with Lawrence and Nietzsche) and the more extreme biocentric beliefs espoused by some radical environmentalists.  He also quotes Gary Snyder, who, though influenced by Jeffers, complains that his 'tall cold view' does not seem to have room for 'the inhuman beauty / of parsnips or diapers, the deathless / nobility at the core of all ordinary things.'

I think it is possible to agree with Snyder without wishing to read too many poems about diapers (having had six years of them I am thoroughly acquainted with their deathless nobility). Jeffers had two sons, and wrote 'I shall die, and my boys / Will live and die, our world will go on through its rapid agonies of change and discovery; this age will die.'  This poem also illustrates the way Jeffers could write about the Californian landscape: 'we stayed the night in the pathless gorge of Ventana Creek, up the east fork. / The rock walls and the mountain ridges hung forest on forest above our heads, maple and redwood, / Laurel, oak, madrone, up to the high and slender Santa Lucian firs that stare up the cataracts / Of slide-rock to the star-color precipices...' For more on Jefferson and landscape you can browse the archives of the Jeffers Studies site: see for example 'Robinson Jeffers and the California Sublime', 'Robinson Jeffers' California Landscape and the Rhetoric of Displacement', 'The Essential landscape: Jeffers among the photographers' and three articles on Jeffers, geology and rocks.  Of particular relevance to this post is Peter Quigley's article 'Carrying the Weight: Jeffers’s Role in Preparing the Way for Ecocriticism'.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Woods of Raasay

Alec Finlay and Ken Cockburn have now reached Raasay on the Road North.  Their most recent post pays tribute to Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain), the great poet of Raasay, and his poem 'Hallaig'.  They include a map, a Borgesian signpost and three hokku labels pinned to trees - 'she is birch', 'she is rowan', 'she is hazel'.  These  refer to the lines 'tha i 'na beithe, 'na calltuinn, / 'na caorunn dhìreach sheang ùir'.  Maclean translated these lines into English as 'she is a birch, a hazel, / a straight slender young rowan' and Seamus Heaney's version has 'A flickering birch, a hazel, / A trim, straight sapling rowan'.

In a 2002 lecture Heaney wrote about how impressed he had been by 'Hallaig', a poem that arose 'out of MacLean's sense of belonging to a culture that is doomed but that he will never deny. It's as local as anything in Thomas Hardy and as lambent as Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus'. 'Hallaig' is a landscape emptied by the Highland clearances.  The poem is 'set at twilight, in the Celtic twilight, in effect, at that time of day when the land of the living and the land of the dead become pervious to each other, when the deserted present becomes populous with past lives, when the modern conifers make way for the native birch and rowan, and when the birch and rowan in their turn metamorphose into a procession of girls walking together out of the 19th-century hills. The poem tells us that in Hallaig there is something to protect, and goes on to show that it is indeed being protected, which is the reason for the uncanny joy a reader feels at the end.'

'Hallaig' is this month's featured poem on the Sorley MacLean Trust website.  They quote John MacInnes, who says that in 'Hallaig' 'both the Gaelic sense of landscape, idealised in terms of society, and the Romantic sense of communion with Nature, merge in a single vision, a unified sensibility.’  The same could be said of another Sorley MacLean poem, 'Coilltean Ratharsair' ('The Woods of Raasay'), which begins like a Gaelic version of The Prelude  (as Terry Gifford says in Green Voices: Understanding Contemporary Nature Poetry).  In its early verses the poem recalls the woods in motion, in blossom, in sunlight and shade, many-coloured, many-winded, serene and humming with song.  But the imagery becomes darker ('O the wood! / How much there is in her dark depths!') and there is a growing recognition that idealised woods are as unattainable as perfect love.  'What is the meaning of worshipping Nature / because the wood is part of it?'  In the end, wood itself is simple - 'the way of sap is known' - but 'there is no knowledge of the course of the crooked veering of the heart' or 'of the final end of each pursuit.'

Saturday, September 04, 2010

A lake of fire awaiting the final sunset

Sight and Sound's October 'Film of the Month' is Sarah Turner's Perestroika, 'a journey into both the snowy wastes of Siberia and the fractured mind of its grieving narrator'.  Chris Darke's review makes a connection with the recent resurgence in British nature writing, wondering if similar trends in film will be equally germane to our environmental fears: 'The 'landscape film' is a hardy sub-genre of British experimental cinema, from Chris Welsby's elemental 1970s nature studies, via Derek Jarman's The Garden (1990) - a record of his own little acre in the shadow of Dungeness nuclear power station - to the contemporary work of Peter Todd and Emily Richardson.  In her remarkable film Perestroika, the British artist-film-maker Sarah Turner reinvents the genre for the present day: the 'landscape film' under the sign of extinction.'

I have not yet seen the film but have been reading about it at Catherine Grant's filmanalytical and the links provided there. The director sees her film explicitly as 'an environmental allegory. Hot and cold represent the relationship between inside and outside. Inside the train is boiling because of the heaters and thick glass but you’re passing through a freezing landscape. In the developed world we sit in our overheated units while outside our planet heats up. The change is evident in the landscape itself. There are great swathes without snow and they’re harvesting wheat, in December, in Siberia.' What Chris Darke describes as the film's 'extreme psychogeography' culminates in the narrator's vision of Baikal, the deepest lake in the world 'and the zero-point of Siberia's status as a weathervane of global warning, landscape and mind', as 'a lake of fire awaiting the final sunset'.